Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Self-Reform

by H. S. S.

It is agreed on all sides that the improvement of the condition of the poor must soon be recognized as by far the most pressing and important question of the age in which we live. Two main solutions of the difficulty are offered us, which may be briefly expressed by the words ‘Reform’ and ‘Self-reform.’ There are some who assert that no real progress can be made until the root of the evil is extirpated by drastic legislative reform of a more or less socialistic character. On the other hand, some are of opinion that the mischief lies chiefly in the thriftless habits of the poor themselves, and that self-reform is the only true cure of the evil. A writer in the Christian Socialist, of October last, has however shown that there is no real or necessary antagonism between these two suggested remedies, but that, on the contrary, each is useless and imperfect without the other. “Both Reform and Self-reform,” he says, “are duties of primary importance; and it is therefore foolish and idle to discuss which must take precedence of the other: the fact being that they must proceed pari passu, or not at all. We Socialists therefore recognize, as fellow-workers and assistants, all those who are promoting the spread of education, thrift, food reform, temperance, and all such individual improvement.”

Now Food-reform is undoubtedly one of the most important branches of self-reform, and we Food Reformers, therefore, welcome this recognition of the importance of the cause we have at heart, and we do so the more gladly because there is generally a tendency among advanced socialistic reformers to under-estimate or even disparage the advantages of thrift. And since we claim for such self-reform an importance at least equal to that attributed by the advocates of the legislative changes to the reforms they demand, it is well that we should state clearly our reasons for placing such a high value on the practice of Vegetarianism.

First; we readily admit what is often asserted by Socialists that adoption of a thrifty diet could not in itself improve the condition of the poor to any large extent. Individuals may at present save largely by the economy of a vegetable diet, but when once the possibility of such a diet began to be  recognised, wages would fall accordingly, and the whole advantage of the thrift would go to the capitalist class. This is very clearly shewn by Mr. George in “Progress and Poverty;” and the obvious inference is that some external legislative change has, in the present state of affairs, become an absolute necessity. But while making this admission all Food Reformers must protest against the very slight importance attributed by Mr George to habits of thrift and frugality in living. However true it may be that such self-reform is of itself useless, in the face of the constant pressure of poverty caused by insufficient wages, it is nevertheless deplorably unwise to undervalue and decry the importance of habits without which no community can ever live in true happiness and content. If we fully admit the necessity of Land reform, it still remains as true as ever that no result can be entirely satisfactory unless we have learnt also to reform ourselves. For the sake of argument, let us imagine that all the legislative changes demanded by the most advanced reformers have been carried into effect; that the land is nationalised, and that labour is no longer enslaved and degraded by capital. What then? We shall still be very far from a state of true civilization, unless our labourers, then at last free to live as they like, know how to live. A perfect condition of life cannot by any possibility be imagined, in which a vegetarian diet will not hold a prominent place. If once we sanction the continuance of the system of slaughtering animals for food these results must inevitably follow—First there will be a waste of land and labour in producing costly and unnecessary food. Secondly there will be a loss in physical health, for all history teaches us that natural vigour is chiefly fostered by frugality and simplicity of life. Thirdly there will be no true beauty in home life, that being impossible as long as all our finer feelings are outraged and blunted by the unnatural and ugly business of the slaughter-house.

It may, however, be said, as Mr. George seems to imply, that when once our social conditions have been improved by legislative reforms, and when once the curse of poverty has been removed, self-reform will follow as a matter of course, under the purer atmosphere in which we shall then live. This may be so; we Food Reformers have certainly no desire to minimize the good effect likely to ensue from any sort of reform, and we are well aware that the present age of luxury and extravagance is most unfavourable, to the growth of vegetarian principles. But, on the other hand, it is at least fair to point out that the benefits resulting from the alliance of Land-reform and Food-reform are not wholly one-sided; for if Vegetarianism ever became prevalent, the cause of the Land Reformers would be enormously assisted. All Vegetarians are personally simple in their tastes and habits of life, and therefore averse to all luxury and selfish aggrandizement of individuals at the expense of their fellows. Thus Food-reform indirectly conduces to reform in general, for those who judge rightly in that most vital matter, the food, instinctively hit on the right course in regard to other great questions of liberty and social morality, such as Temperance, Land Reform, Vivisection, Compulsory Vaccination, and the like. Indeed this importance of all kinds of self-reform was frankly admitted by the writer in the Christian Socialist, from whom I have already quoted; and my only reason in thus enlarging on the advantages of a thrifty diet is to be found in the fact that so many socialists are inclined, like Mr. George, to take a less sympathetic view. They first show, what is undeniably true, that the great social difficulty can never be solved by the mere preaching, or even practice, of thrift; and then, alas! they pass on to the glaring absurdity of supposing that the subject of thrift may be cast aside as irrelevant or unimportant.

We, on our part, must take care that we do not fall into a similar error, and commit a like piece of injustice. We cannot too often remind ourselves that in the tangled web of misery and poverty, which is an unfortunate feature of the age in which we live, no one reform, whether personal or legislative, can possibly be of itself effective. But this much we may at least allow ourselves to believe, that the man who has a right and pure idea on what has very truly been called the “Great Food Question,” has taken what is perhaps the most important step towards a correct view of the whole social problem. Other questions may be more exciting, and may be more pressing in their demand for immediate attention; but there is no movement which, directly or indirectly, is so truly progressive and wide-reaching in its results as the question of Food Reform.

Published: The Food Reform Magazine, Vol. III No. 3, January-March 1884